Charles Michel admits: EU’s not in the Middle East ‘game’

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ZAGREB — The EU is out of the game.

European Council President Charles Michel appeared to admit as much anyway, in a series of comments on Thursday about the recent crisis in the Middle East in which he insisted the EU would seize a bigger role on the world stage. He just didn’t say how.

“It’s very important for the European Union not only to observe what the others would decide for us but it’s important for the European Union to be an actor, to be a player,” Michel said, standing alongside Andrej Plenković, the prime minister of Croatia, which took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU at the start of this month.

“I want Europe [to be] part of the game,” Michel, who took office at the start of December, told reporters in the Croatian capital, Zagreb. “I want Europe to be more involved at external level.”

On one level, the statement was an inherent, if heartfelt, admission that the EU has until now been sidelined, sitting on the bench, hoping for its chance. On another level, it left Michel vulnerable to criticism that he regards the conflict in the Middle East as a mere “game.”

Michel denied that events in Libya are evidence of Europe actually losing ground.

The totality of Michel’s comments, before and during the news conference with Plenković, suggest that he regards the situation with utmost seriousness. But at the same time he issued a series of statements that in a diplomatic context were unorthodox, to say the least.

After a morning phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Michel insisted that “the EU stands ready to enforce its engagement with all sides in order to defuse tensions” and to “enforce its role on an international level.” But he did not explain how, or on whom, the EU could “enforce” anything.

His statement about the call also declared “the EU has its own interests and its vision.” But it was unclear who, if anyone, had suggested otherwise.

Michel’s most expansive comments came during the news conference in Zagreb, where his outfit — a blazer over a turtleneck — drew a torrent of commentary on Twitter, if only because he was in Croatia, which prides itself as the home of the necktie.

“We’re a strong economic power,” Michel said. “I’m convinced at international level that we have to promote more our values.”

He added, “It means in the Middle East, for example, that we have to be involved.”

To get involved and boost the EU’s role, Michel talked about the work he has been doing to “develop many channels of communication,” including the call with Rouhani and visits he will make Saturday to see the leaders of Turkey and Egypt.

Describing the call with Rouhani, Michel said: “In the next days, in the next weeks, we’ll be very involved.” But moments later he didn’t have much of an answer about what to expect from an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers on Friday to discuss Iran.

Michel was the very first EU leader to react to the controversial U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, last Friday. And in recent days, he has engaged in a frenzy of consultations, including with both Washington and Tehran, to call for deescalation, as well as with European leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and with Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat.

Michel also plans to speak again on Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. One EU official said Michel had publicly announced his plans to visit Turkey and Egypt because he is confident the talks would be substantive.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is welcomed by European Council President Charles Michel before their meeting at the Europa building in Brussels, Belgium on January 8 | Fransisco Seco/EPA-EFE

But despite Michel’s proactive instincts, the EU has seemed flatfooted in recent days, as on Wednesday when the presidents of Russia and Turkey declared a cease-fire in Libya, even as EU leaders were engaged in a series of meetings with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Brussels that yielded no concrete results.

The civil war in Libya is especially dangerous for the EU. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves, and it is the point of origin for many migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe. But as EU nations disagreed among themselves, the role of Turkey and Russia grew, particularly at the expense of Italy and France, which have offered support to rival sides in Libya.

Moscow and Ankara also support opposite sides in Libya, but somehow managed to reach a consensus in calling for the cease-fire.

Responding to a question at Thursday’s news conference, Michel denied that events in Libya are evidence of Europe actually losing ground.

Michel described his own meetings on Libya, including with Libyan factions, before saying that here also the EU has a greater potential to fulfill. “At the moment we face real difficulties in Libya … with potential difficult consequences for Europe, that’s why [it] is important to be more involved. And also in Iran and Iraq [it] is important to be part of the discussion.”

“Is it easy?” Michel asked, happy to answer his own question if not one posed by a reporter. “No it is not easy … We have a strong political will to be more involved, more committed at the international level.”

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